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Good things come to those who bake.
Grayson used to love baking, but the recipe for running his parents’ café changes every day. His dad, overwhelmed by grief, is no help. They can’t even talk about Gray’s mom, let alone the failing business. Of less help is the crush Gray has on Sporty—a trainer from the local gym. Gray barely has time for his friends, let alone scratching the itch Sporty inspires.
Aaron suspects he’s not Gray’s type, meaning Gray probably isn’t into fitness, board games, or redheads. Still, that doesn’t stop Aaron visiting the café twice a week. The day Gray finally speaks to him personally could have been the start of something—if Gray hadn’t immediately suffered a heart attack.
The prescription for Gray’s recovery includes exercise, but when Aaron steps in to help, Gray is dubious. He’s never been fond of working out. The more he gets to know Aaron, though, the more they seem to have in common, especially when it comes to games. Aaron has been quietly designing his own, and when Gray shows interest, they embark on a quest to complete it together: a hero’s journey complicated by family, the demands of their careers, their fledgling relationship, and learning to be honest about what they want out of life.
I really enjoyed Kelly Jensen’s Sundays With Oliver, book one in her Hearts and Crafts series. Like her This Time Forever series, Hearts and Crafts features older characters (well, in their forties) finding love, and she does it very well, creating characters and situations that feel very realistic, especially given she’s writing about people who have put down roots, who have commitments and the baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times. We met Grayson – Gray – Clery in Oliver’s book; he’s Oliver’s best friend, and he runs a small family bakery/coffee/sandwich shop that enabled him to help Oliver out when he was getting his own baking/consumables business going.
Gray moved back to Stroudsburg after the death of his mother two years earlier, to help his dad with the business, but his dad was – and is – so weighed down by his loss that he’s basically ’checked out’ and Gray has been doing everything. His real love is bread and baking, but having to deal with all the admin on top of the day-to-day business of preparing food and serving customers in a really busy shop has stretched him very thin and he has absolutely no time for himself. He’s stressed up to the eyeballs and hasn’t been feeling good for a while, but he’s ignored it, too busy to listen to what his body is telling him, until it forces him to, and he has a heart attack in the middle of the morning rush.
Aaron Asher is a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the local gym he co-owns with his sister and her wife. He’s a regular customer at Clery’s and has had a crush on Gray for quite a while, but Gray is always so busy, Aaron hasn’t managed to have an actual conversation beyond his sandwich order. He’s buying his lunch when he notices Gray doesn’t look so good; when Gray doubles over, Aaron manages to prevent him from crashing to the floor and then yells for someone to call 911.
While Grey is recovering from what he terms “All The FussTM”, his friends rally round to help with the café and keep things going until Gray is well enough to return to it. He’s surpised to discover Aaron among their number; they don’t know each other at all really, although he can’t deny he’s noticed Aaron’s trim body, bright red hair and freckles whenever he’s come in for lunch, and likes what he sees. One afternoon just after closing, Gray finds Aaron still there clearing up, and surprises himself by inviting Aaron up to his apartment for a cup of coffee. Well, tea, as he’s supposed to be off the caffeine. As they chat, a little awkwardly at first, Gray starts to tell him about all the ‘rules’ he was given after leaving hospital, about the exercise he should be doing and about what he should and shouldn’t eat. This sort of thing is totally in Aaron’s wheelhouse, and he suggests that he could create an appropriate fitness program for Gray, one that will help him to build up his strength and stamina most efficiently while also being something to help him stay healthy in the long term. Gray is obviously a bit wary, but in the end agrees to give it a go.
Gray and Aaron are engaging, endearing characters and I liked them both individually and as a couple. Their romance develops slowly, which feels absolutely right for who they are and what’s going on in their lives (a lot) and the author builds a connection between them that is based on honesty and caring and communication. That’s all great, but I didn’t feel much of a romantic spark between them; their growing bond is enhanced by the discovery of a mutual love of board games and I loved the way they feel able to be fully themselves with each other in a way they haven’t beent able to with their families. That said, it’s all a little bit… placid and their chemistry is rather lukewarm, which may in part be due to the amount of page time Gray and Aaron spend apart, dealing with their separate issues.
Shelf Life is just as much a story about two guys at crossroads in their lives figuring out their next steps and dealing with family expectations as it is a romance. I enjoyed those other aspects of the book and liked the way Ms. Jensen uses their storylines to explore the ways in which even the most supportive of families can be constraining and how hard it can be to break out of an established pattern, even when that pattern comes from a good place. Both Gray and Aaron have families who love and care for them, but they have to realise that they’re allowed to do things differently and make changes if that’s what will make them happiest.
The biggest issue I have with the book is the pacing. It gets off to a really strong start, and the first half just flew by as I got to know Gray and Aaron, watched them crushing on each other a bit and then falling for each other, but things slow down in the second half as the story starts meandering a bit. The author’s own passion for gaming shows through – which is great, because she’s obviously writing from a place of knowledge and experience – but if, like me, you haven’t got the faintest idea about – or interest in – gaming, there are long passages about the intricacies of the game Gray and Aaron are working on together that will just pass you by. As the two men are geeking out, I’m afraid I tuned out and started skimming.
Even so, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The secondary cast is strongly written, and the situations the characters face feel very realistic – I liked that even though both Gray and Aaron have great relationships with their parents and siblings, they still have problems to address. if you’re looking for a gently moving romance between mature characters and don’t mind that the focus is split between the romance and all the other things going on in their lives, Shelf Life is certainly worth your consideration.